The year 2021 has proved a landmark for the “school choice” cause as Republican control of a majority of state legislatures combined with pandemic learning disruptions to set the stage for multiple victories. Seven U.S. states have created new “school choice” programs and eleven others have expanded current programs, with laws that authorize taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schooling, provide tax credits, and authorize educational savings accounts to invite parents to abandon public schools.
“School choice” sounds like it offers options. But my new INET Working Paper shows that the whole concept, as first implemented in the U.S. South in the mid-1950s in defiance of Brown v. Board of Education, aimed to block the choice of equal, integrated education for Black families. Further, Milton Friedman, soon to become the best-known neoliberal economist in the world, abetted the push for private schooling that states in the U.S. South used to evade the reach of the ruling, which only applied to public schools. So, too, did other libertarians endorse the segregationist tool, including founders of the cause that today avidly pushes private schooling. Among them were Friedrich Hayek, Murray Rothbard, Robert Lefevre, Isabel Patterson, Felix Morley, Henry Regnery, trustees of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), and the William Volker Fund, which helped underwrite the American wing of the Mont Pelerin Society, the nerve center of neoliberalism.
Friedman and his allies saw in the backlash to the desegregation decree an opportunity they could leverage to advance their goal of privatizing government services and resources. Whatever their personal beliefs about race and racism, they helped Jim Crow survive in America by providing ostensibly race-neutral arguments for tax subsidies to the private schools sought by white supremacists. Indeed, to achieve court-proof vouchers, leading defenders of segregation learned from the libertarians that the best strategy was to abandon overtly racist rationales and embrace both an anti-government stance and a positive rubric of liberty, competition, and market choice.
Friedman published his first manifesto for “educational freedom” in 1955—just as conservative white leaders in Virginia were inciting a regionwide strategy of “massive resistance” to the mandate to desegregate public schooling. The success of massive resistance hinged on state provision of school vouchers to parents who otherwise would concede to desegregated schooling. Virginia and other states maintained the vouchers until 1968. That was when the U.S. Supreme Court, in a Virginia-based case, outlawed them as intentionally discriminatory. Yet Milton Friedman held up that purposefully discriminatory Virginia plan as a model for schooling everywhere in Capitalism and Freedom, now translated into eighteen languages, “Whether the school is integrated or not,” he wrote, should have no bearing on eligibility for the vouchers.
Black Virginians opposed these vouchers with near unanimity. Oliver Hill, the NAACP attorney who had co-led Virginia’s piece of the litigation folded into Brown, put the principle in an apt axiom: “No one in a democratic society has a right to have his private prejudices financed at public expense.”
In contrast, libertarian thought leaders and the neoliberal cause’s main funder at the time saw no problem with tax subsidies to segregation academies, even in states that denied voting rights to the African Americans harmed by the policy. While Friedman and most of his neoliberal collaborators made their case for privatization in race-neutral language and may not personally have been driven by racial animus, they had no scruples about exploiting white supremacy to move their otherwise unsaleable policy agenda. This history reveals how Milton Friedman and his allies provided aid and comfort to those who presided over a racial dictatorship in the Jim Crow South, an apartheid-like regime that stayed in power through state-sponsored repression, employer retaliation, and private violence.
The collaboration between neoliberal intellectuals and segregationists involved opportunism on both parts, to be sure. But what made it work was the overlap in their values and views of government. Each placed a premium on the liberty of those who had long profited from racial capitalism and sought to shield it from government action on the part of Americans, Black and white, committed to democratic values. At a moment when at least some whites in the South were prepared to accept a more equitable society, neoliberals lined up with the beneficiaries of the old order. Not surprisingly, the outcome was not freedom, but the entrenchment of structural racism.
And the sad fact of the matter is that improving education was never the true reason for free-market fundamentalists’ embrace of vouchers. As Friedman signaled in that first 1955 manifesto and argued for over a half century, school “choice” was a way station on the route to radical privatization. The vouchers were a tactic. The strategy they served was to stick parents with the full cost of their children’s schooling and the labor of finding and arranging it.
“In my ideal world, government would not be responsible for providing education any more than it is for providing food and clothing,” Friedman repeated in 2004 what he had long maintained. “Private charity would be more than ample to assure that there were schools available for every child.” He was as frank in addressing a meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) four months before his death in 2006. Said Friedman: “the ideal way [to give parents control of their children’s education] would be to abolish the public school system and eliminate all the taxes that pay for it.” In the real world, this would be engineered inequality so staggering that it would make today’s inequities look modest by comparison.
That is what today’s libertarian billionaire backers of vouchers, with Charles G. Koch in the lead, are keeping from the unsuspecting parents on whom the cause relies for electoral success, now Black and Latino as well as white. Vouchers, like freedom, are a horse to ride somewhere. The destination would shock most people, but soon it could be too late to reverse course.